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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Safe in the circle

Simba & Simsa save lives of at-risk youth

Photos by Chris Ocken.

In a year in which gun violence and gangs have dominated the news, a 20-year-old ELCA initiative is making steady progress in the fight to save the lives of at-risk youth in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest.

The Simba Circle began in 1993 as an Afrocentric camping experience for at-risk, inner-city boys between 8 and 17, mostly from Chicago’s South and West sides but including youth from such cities as Detroit, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio. While no longer directly under ELCA sponsorship, it continues under the umbrella of the nonprofit Rescue, Release & Restore (RRR), operating out of the ELCA’s Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale, Ill.

Today the program includes separate camps for girls and boys. This year’s gatherings were held at Reynoldswood, a Christian camp outside Dixon, Ill.

The name Simba comes from the Swahili word for lion, famously the name of the lead character in Disney’s The Lion King. The founders converted it into an acronym for “Safe In My Brothers’ Arms.” The girls’ component, Simsa, stands for “Safe In My Sisters’ Arms.” The campers are referred to as Simbas and Simsas.

Gaylord Thomas was one of those who founded the Simba Circle in 1993 when he was on the staff of the then ELCA Division for Church in Society. Now retired, he is a member of Shekinah and still active in the program. Thomas said Simba began in part as a response to the tensions within the African-American community that erupted during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and other cities.

In 1993 it was rare for an inner-city boy or girl to go to a summer camp. But Simba’s mission was to provide more than summertime fun. It aimed at helping the campers develop practical, spiritual and communal skills and tools to cope with and thrive in a society that often devalued and discarded them.

They developed a rite of passage program based in part on an eight-unit Afrocentric Bible study developed by Harvard Stephens, an ELCA pastor, and the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. As a rule, there is an adult leader or counselor for every three or four youth campers.

The idea of the community has been an important element of the Simba Circle from the start. But although women participated as camp counselors and consultants from the beginning, the program didn’t have a girls’ camp until 2007, when a determined group of young women insisted it was time to start one.

One of them was Shemiah Curry, the then 14-year-old daughter of Shekinah’s pastor, Yehiel Curry, himself a veteran of Simba Circle. Now 20, she is a junior at Bennett College, Greensboro, N.C., where she was an orientation leader at the start of the current school year. Curry said the Simsa experience has given her confidence and leadership skills.


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